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Early Egyptian Religious Beliefs and Akhenaten's Reforms

Essay by review  •  September 19, 2010  •  Research Paper  •  2,883 Words (12 Pages)  •  1,617 Views

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Early Egyptian Religious Beliefs and Akhenaten's Reforms

During the New Kingdom of Egypt (from 1552 through 1069 B.C.), there came a sweeping change in the religious structure of the ancient Egyptian civilization. "The Hymn to the Aten" was created by Amenhotep IV, who ruled from 1369 to 1353 B.C., and began a move toward a monotheist culture instead of the polytheist religion which Egypt had experienced for the many hundreds of years prior to the introduction of this new idea. There was much that was different from the old views in "The Hymn to the Aten", and it offered a new outlook on the Egyptian ways of life by providing a complete break with the traditions which Egypt held to with great respect. Yet at the same time, there were many commonalties between these new ideas and the old views of the Egyptian world. Although through the duration of his reign, Amenhotep IV introduced a great many changes to the Egyptian religion along with "The Hymn", none of these reforms outlived their creator, mostly due to the massive forces placed on his successor, Tutankhamen, to renounce these new reforms. However, the significance of Amenhotep IV, or Akhenaten as he later changed his name to, is found in "The Hymn". "The Hymn" itself can be looked at as a contradiction of ideas; it must be looked at in relation to both the Old Kingdom's belief of steadfast and static values, as well as in regards to the changes of the Middle Kingdom, which saw unprecedented expansionistic and individualistic oriented reforms. In this paper I plan to discuss the evolvement of Egyptian Religious Beliefs throughout the Old,

Middle, and New Kingdoms and analyze why Amenhotep IV may have brought about such religious reforms.

The Old Kingdom of Egypt (from 2700 to 2200 B.C.), saw the commencement of many of the rigid, formal beliefs of the Egyptian civilization, both in regards to their religious and political beliefs, as they were very closely intertwined. "... There was a determined attempt to impose order on the multitude of gods and religious beliefs that had existed since predynastic times... and the sun-god Re became the supreme royal god, with the king taking the title of Son of Re" (David 155). The Egyptians overall believed that nature was an incorruptible entity and that to reach a state of human perfection in the afterlife, they too would have to change from their corruptible human shells to mimic the incorruptibility of nature. Upper and Lower Egypt were united for the first time under one ruler, however, this would come to an end around 2200 B.C.. In much of the Egyptian hieroglyphs, the Pharaoh was often depicted as almost larger than life, with great power and much of Egyptian art is a celebration of his accomplishments. The formation of a royal absolutism occurred during this period, with the Pharaoh and a small-centralized administration, composed mainly of royal kin and relatives, overseeing all aspects of Egyptian life. The Pharaoh was looked at as a living god among the Egyptian people, who assured the success of Egypt as well as its peace. "The Pharaoh belonged both to the world of the gods and the world of men, and he was seen as a bridge between them. Some of the local deities represented various aspects of nature, such as the earth and the sky, or the Nile and it's gifts of fertility. So the king, living in their midst, could bring the Egyptians into a harmonious relationship with their divinities and with the forces of nature upon which their whole existence depended" (Hawkes 43).

In regard to the religious structure of the Old Kingdom, there was a polytheistic view of the world, as in Mesopotamia. However, unlike the Mesopotamian religion, the Egyptians worked for their kings as opposed to working for their gods. The complex concept of the afterlife was also developed during this period. The Great Pharaohs of the Old Kingdom built great pyramids to forever protect their remains after death. It was believed that the king (solely) could "spend eternity traveling with the gods... However, in order to obtain eternal sustenance, it was also essential that the king could return to earth at will; here, through his preserved body, his spirit imbibes the essence of food and drink offerings, which were continually brought to his burial complex" (David 126). These political and religious views were believed to be sacred and intended to be adhered to without change, following the Egyptian's view of nature as an unchanging constant, and a static phenomenon.

After the collapse of the Old Kingdom, there came the First Intermediate Period during which the United Egypt separated. It became a time of turmoil and disaster. The Pharaoh

was over thrown and society simply collapsed resulting in anarchy throughout Egypt. Famine and disease were widespread and the rich were equal to the poor. "Since the Kingship was discredited, individuals now demanded their own eternity. Tombs were equipped in provincial districts for the local rulers, but gradually, democratization of beliefs came to affect all levels of society, and even the poorest classes hoped to achieve individual immortality" (David 132). Order was eventually restored and Egypt entered into a great period of prosperity. This was the Middle Kingdom. Though Egypt was separated, both Upper and Lower Egypt still had a shared religion, just different views as to whom the heroes and villains were in their mythology.

The Middle Kingdom, which occurred between 2040 and 1674 B.C., saw the re-emergence of a united Egypt. The Pharaohs of this period were once again the center of the kingdom, and the military might of Egypt was far greater than it been in previous centuries. However, the Pharaoh was not as great a political power as he had been in the Old Kingdom, as the nobles had begun to gain a sense of greater independence from the Pharaoh, in respect to the idea that they needed him to assure themselves a place in the afterlife. They believed that they could obtain eternity themselves by using symbols of the monarchy from the Old Kingdom as well as magical spells, which they collected from the Pyramid Texts. The nobles had their own large tombs, but they "were no longer constructed near the King's pyramid but were scattered more independently across the necropolis, and the high quality of the wall-decoration in these tombs indicated their owner's importance" (David 129). The political structure of the Middle Kingdom was also changing from that of the Old Kingdom. In the past, the government was run by only the immediate family of the Pharaoh, in the Middle

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